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Study reveals why the leopard got its spots
Rudyard Kipling was right - leopards and other big cats have had to change their spots in order to survive.

A study published today by William Allen and colleagues from the University of Bristol in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that cat coat pattern is strongly related to the type of environment they live in.

The researchers first collected images from the internet of the coat patterns of 35 species of cats - including jaguars, cheetahs, tigers and leopards, as well as lesser known species such as the fishing cat and the serval.

Instead of having simple categories such as spots or stripes, the researchers refined the coat patterns further, using a technique called reaction diffusion.

This technique, first proposed by British mathematician Alan Turing in the 1950s converts a pattern from nature into a computer generated one, which then has its own unique identification number.

Five people were shown a selection of computer generated patterns and asked to match them as closely as possible with actual cat patterns.

The coats were then compared with the type of environment each cat lived in.

For big cats who must stalk and catch their prey, camouflage is a vital part of survival.

The results showed that cats living in dense habitats such as rainforests, who spend time in trees or are active at low light levels are the most likely to be patterned. These patterns are also more likely to be irregular or complex, with spots of different sizes and shapes.

By comparison, cats living in well lit and uniform environments such as grasslands or plains were more likely to have either small spots or plain coats.

The researchers admit there are exceptions. For example, they are stumped by the cheetah, which despite living in the open plains has a strongly patterned coat. The tiger too is an anomaly - its stripes suggest it lives in long grass but its actual habitat is forest.
Australian applications

Dr Scott Burnett, a wildlife ecologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says there are some interesting similarities between these findings and Australian fauna, says

Burnett says spotted tail quolls, for example, live in the rainforest and have complex coat patterning with many spots of different sizes and shapes. By comparison, the northern quoll lives in savannah woodlands where the trees are widely space has smaller and has less vibrant spots.

"In a rainforest environment, it's a much more complex pattern that's falling on the forest floor because of all the different layers of leaves and the amount of leaves. This is just speculation, but I think the spotting is evolving in response to the background patterning," he says.

The researchers also found that cats in rainforests tend to have darker coats.

"We see that with these two quolls as well," says Burnett.

"It's not just about sneaking up on prey, it's also about camouflage from predators. With the quolls, my suspicion is that their pattern is about camouflage from predators such as eagles, large owls, Tasmanian devils and thylacines, which used to live throughout the mainland, and also extinct animals such as giant goannas and marsupial lions.

Burnett says the research could be applied to the conservation of critically threatened marsupials

"If we can identify through their patterning what the most effective vegetation type or structure is for that camouflage to work, that might give us a really good target to look at in terms of restoring those ecosystems," he says.

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